Advertising and Alienation

Advertising and Alienation September 30, 2016

Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place is a brief for the “third place,” a place that is neither home nor workplace, a public place that isn’t political, the cafe, tavern, coffee shop or diner where everyone knows your name. “Third place” designates “a great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work” (16).

American suburbia, and hence American cities, have lost their third places. Suburbanites move from home to work and back, usually inside individual enclosed automobile spaces. Most of us can’t walk to the corner pub, and we aren’t greeted with a loud “Norm!” when we walk into the Buffalo Wild Wings for an evening of wings, beer and basketball. (Note: Oldenburg’s book was published in 1989, before coffee shops, urban hipsters, and micro-breweries began their surge.)

We still have leisure, of course, lots of it, but in the absence of third places, leisure gets commercialized. Oldenburg write, “Where the means and facilities for relaxation and leisure are not publicly shared, they become objects of private ownership and consumption.” Two-thirds of the GNP “is based on personal consumption and expenditures. . . . leisure has been perverted into consumption” (11).

One of the “aggressive, driving” forces behind this commercialization of leisure is advertising, and its effects, Oldenburg thinks, are destructive: “Paragons of self-righteousness, advertisers promulgate the notion that society would languish in a state of inertia but for their efforts. ‘Nothing happens until somebody sells something,’ they love to say. That may be true enough within a strictly commercial world . . . but the development of an informal public life depends upon people finding and enjoying one another outside the cash nexus. Advertising, in its ideology and effects, is the enemy of an informal public life. It breeds alienation. It convinces people that the good life can be individually purchased. In the place of the shared camaraderie of people who see themselves as equals, the ideology of advertising substitutes competitive acquisition. It is the difference between loving people for what they are and envying them for what they own” (11).

Advertisers promise the good life, but, Oldenburg says, they simultaneously corrode the conditions that make for the good life.

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